Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

Natural disaster, experienced virtually

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishAs North Carolina towns like Goldsboro, Kinston, and Lumberton experience intense flooding long after Hurricane Matthew veered away from the coast, we are reminded again how disasters can take their own sluggish time. In the current case, it has taken days for intense rain water to move from inland streams to larger rivers, raising them to record heights.  “This is going to be a prolonged event,” announced North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, after having signed an expedited Major Disaster Declaration for his beleaguered state.

My book, which is just about to be released with Princeton University Press, considers a different “prolonged event,” a “superflood” which took not three or four days to arrive, but rather months. The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History is about the year-long disaster known colloquially as “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” In a magnified version of the 2016 disaster, intense rains and snow fell for months throughout the upper branches of the river system, creating upstream flooding. Then these swollen tributaries all disgorged into the Lower Mississippi River simultaneously, evincing what one commentator at the time called a “sinister rhythm.”

If you have been following Hurricane Matthew and its path through Haiti, Florida and North Carolina, you understand that in the modern era, we experience most disasters virtually. I started thinking about this issue of virtual disaster consumption in the days surrounding, and months following, the New Orleans levee disaster of 2005 (“Katrina”). I began to wonder: how and why do disasters become publicly meaningful? Why do certain environmental catastrophes receive scant attention while others seem to place our national character on public trial? Is attention an unqualified good? How should we communicate with ourselves about disasters, especially now, in a time when human activity largely determines their makeup?

After much research, I came to realize that the first U.S. disaster to occur in a media landscape as well as in an industrialized, stress-bearing environment much like our own was the Mississippi Flood of 1927. The ways in which this flood went public, and then lost unified public meaning and indeed national attention, represent a fascinating case in modern disaster communication and consumption.

The 1927 flood was a humanly caused event. Deforestation, wetlands drainage, and monoculture farming throughout the Mississippi watershed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seriously reduced the storage capacity of its soil.  Moreover, designers of the flood protection system elected not to mimic an alluvial basin’s own mechanisms for holding and dispersing water in times of overflow. Engineers decided instead to impound the river within a towering levee system. Months of very intense rain and snowfall turned this precarious situation into catastrophe in the Lower Mississippi Valley as levees, and more levees, burst—one was even intentionally detonated to save the wealthy banking center and port of New Orleans. Over 600,000 people—mostly African American—were made homeless, land in seven states was inundated, thirteen major crevasses occurred, as many as 1,000 people died, and a year’s worth of cotton and sugar crops were ruined. The Red Cross was established, and the National Guard patrolled 154 “concentration camps” to house the evacuees but also to keep the Delta’s labor force in place.

Media technologies which produced this flood for a virtual audience were distinctly modern.  Wired telegraphy, aerial photography, recorded music, documentary film, a rapid and extensive AP service, and a brand new nationwide radio system were all put into use to transport this flood into homes in the US and around the world.  In the wake of World War I, moreover, governmental organizations knew how to use narrative and representational techniques to weld its citizenry into a unified mass. As communications theorist Harold Laswell put it in 1926, speaking of machine-age propaganda, “more can be won by illusion than by coercion.”

The flood of 1927 did seem to configure, at the flip of an all-powerful speaker switch, a coherent public audience.  FEMA did not yet exist and Congress refused to appropriate special funds, so the Red Cross had to commandeer the communications infrastructure of the nation to involve the public in the work and cost of relief. Newspapers, movie houses, vaudeville stages, and radio stations became vital pathways in a top-down, diffusive program of national coherence. It was not just any story though which made the “huge relief machine” hum, but a particular story about historical redemption. Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. When Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretary in charge of rescue and relief operations, first spoke to a national radio audience, he thus summoned memories of the Civil War. He imagined a new battle being waged between an invading “water enemy” and the people of “our South,” a “great army of unfortunate people.” Northern whites cast themselves this time around, in the words of The New York Times, as “an army of rescuers.” The Red Cross and its news outlets positioned this flood as a redemptive reenactment of the War between the States. This “illusion,” to use Laswell’s word, summoned national investment for about one month, and then public feeling split along regional and racial lines.

Sociologists at this time believed that disasters acted like helpful galvanic events to reset and repair a given society’s structural problems. The North’s disaster narrative, while it did symbolically bring accord, did nothing to actually address southern, and particularly, black southern, economic and political grievances.  White southerners came to express with great trenchancy their dissenting view that this calamity was neither natural nor redemptive, but was due to mainly northern environmental practices and the Federal government’s misguided levees-only policy. When they looked at the water destroying their crops, they saw Yankee water.

Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood.  As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie, and that northern institutions were abetting its reestablishment. W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White and others publicly decried this situation in The Crisis, The Chicago Defender, and The Nation.

Whites outside the South began to lose enthusiasm too for Hoover’s “reconstruction machine.” Valiant scenarios of rescuing southern brethren gave way to a regretful feeling that the South was forever an intractable “problem.” H.L. Mencken acerbically wondered why anyone would care about such a backward place of “tinpot revivals” and anti-intellectualism. And others just felt the story had grown dull. An editorial in The Nation averred that “people can stand only so much calamity. After a while it begins to pall, and finally it has no meaning whatever.” Another complained that the flood, lacking the dramatic unities of place and time, was aesthetically unsatisfying. And another observed that it is very hard to care for “a mud-besmattered mass of human beings” because only individual peril really moves an audience.

Once the flood slipped from the national headlines, it continued for some time to resonate in the black press and in the southern press. Eventually the event took up lodging in the imaginations, and the work of two of our major authors, who both happen to hail from Mississippi. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were young men living in or near the flood zone in 1927; each read Memphis’ paper, The Commercial Appeal, and its refutation of the dominant northern flood narrative. Wright was an avid reader of the black press coverage as well. For the next thirteen years, floods would seep into their fiction. While we tend to associate the Great War with modern narrative experimentation, for these two American authors, it was the 1927 flood which brought home the realization that the world was run on chance and risk, and, even more, that humans had made their physical and social worlds still more violently unpredictable.

In the 1920s, the Gulf South represented a leading edge of environmental peril. The region made manifest early what has since become more globally shared. Wright, Faulkner, and other attentive southern authors and performers of that day help us even now think about which stories, and which ways of bending language, comport most searchingly with the world of diffuse, chronic environmental risk in which we now live.

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. Her book, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History, will be published this January.